A diverse group of musicians, Harvard Law School students, artists, academics and activists came together April 8-9 to take a long, hard look at racial injustice at the “Racial Injustice: Terror, Torture, and Trauma/Collaboration, Resistance, and Liberation” conference held at NLU.
Manifestations of racial injustice, such as police beatings, police shootings and outsized incarceration rates for people of color, are viewed as routine by many Americans, if they think of them at all. But conference participants sought to declare they are not “normal” and to reframe them as torture and genocide.
A team of Harvard Law School students discussed the definition of torture and said some of the human rights injustices forced on people of color by public authorities meets the definition.
“Their assertion was that torture is a powerful term, so it has impact to frame racial injustice as torture,” said Ericka Mingo, a conference organizer and NLU Community Psychology doctoral student who will graduate this spring.
Much of Saturday morning at the conference was devoted to the international organization Psychologists for Social Responsibility’s declaration that forms of racial injustice can rise to the level of torture. NLU’s Dr. Brad Olson was one of the champions of the document. Specifically, it says that cruel, inhuman and/or violent acts committed by public officials against individuals and communities of color within the United States constitute torture when they cause severe mental or physical pain and suffering.
“If racial injustice is torture, then it’s time for us to shift the focus, shine a light and form relationships that push back against it,” Mingo said.
The conference provided some opportunities to do that. It also provided opportunities for participants to network, become interested in each others’ work, and join with them to further the cause of racial justice. For example, some of the students and academics became interested in the work of the international nonprofit organization We Charge Genocide, and others took an interest in the social justice messages of musical groups Funkadesi and Las Caseteras.
There was also an art exhibition and a quilt devoted to victims of police shootings, which may raise awareness of the injustices in the quilting community.
Dr. Olson thanked all of the attendees, community psychology PhD students Rochele Royster and Mingo, and Psychologists for Social Responsibility, Adler University, and the Chicago School for Professional Psychology.
He shared that one attendee, in a thank you note, wrote, “while the subject was not easy, you built a multi-generational ethos of hope—real hope in the coming together and in the ability to imagine something else.”
Organizers plan to repeat the conference next year, and create an anthology from this year’s conference.